There will be an all-French final in the Heineken Cup, by way of completing an all-French year. Biarritz, widely considered to be vulnerable to the most hardened European campaigners of them all in San Sebastian yesterday, beat their Irish rivals going away, thanks in no small part to a performance of the greatest courage from their No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy and a scrum-half's contribution from Dimitri Yachvili that frequently beggared belief. If Munster had no answers to either of them, it was because they barely understood the questions.
Harinordoquy, a Basque from Bayonne whose folk-hero status amongst those neighbouring Basques living just down the coast was secured long ago, took the field in the face of medical logic. His nose had been badly smashed a fortnight previously and his only means of participating here was by donning an extravagant mask that made him appear part-warrior, part-mummified Pharaoh: an unusually interesting mix of Beowulf and Amenhotep III.
There was no guarantee he would last beyond the first ruck, let alone make it through the first five minutes, but the inspiration behind this year's French Grand Slam hurled himself into the fray with utter abandon, driving hard off the scrums, leaping athletically for the high balls sent spiralling into the Spanish sky by Ronan O'Gara and tackling with his customary belligerence. Even when he suffered an excruciatingly painful rib injury in the moments before the interval, he refused to withdraw. Emerging for the second half against all expectations, he repeatedly waved away exasperated members of the back-room staff, carrying on regardless deep into the final quarter.
"He's a great player and he's been with us when we've needed him this year," said the Biarritz coach Jack Isaac. "When he decided he'd put on the mask and play, it was a major boost for the group. He probably didn't go as well as he can, which tells you how remarkably good he is, but that display was a reflection of his courageous approach to the game." Isaac then staggered his audience by adding: "Let's not single him out, though. There were courageous performances all over the field." Not single him out? Please.
By the time Harinordoquy walked gingerly from the field, Biarritz had clawed their way into the lead. Thus inspired, they moved onwards and upwards, drilling Munster back at the set-pieces and swarming all over them in the loose. The likes of Alan Quinlan and Mick O'Driscoll worked desperately to stem the tide, but as there was no legal means of doing so, they were bound to put themselves on the wrong side of Dave Pearson, the English referee. And every time they did so, Yachvili made them suffer.
His faultless marksmanship took him past the 500-point mark in Heineken Cup rugby – no mean feat for a man with a pair of pipe-cleaners where his lower legs should be. But there was more to his act than an acute sense of direction from the kicking tee. His tactical punting was excellent, his passing as imaginative as it was precise. Once Biarritz replaced the ineffective England midfielder Ayoola Erinle with Julien Peyrelongue a few minutes after the break and gave Yachvili the security of knowing he now had a fellow tactician outside him, he grew in stature almost by the second. Munster scored the only try of the contest, largely against the run of play on 33 minutes. Erinle, at such sixes and sevens that it was impossible to understand why Biarritz had repeated England's error of the autumn and picked him in a decision-making position, coughed up the ball in contact some 60 metres from his own line. Donncha O'Callaghan made big ground into Basque territory, found Quinlan in support and watched from the deck as Keith Earls finished sweetly on the overlap.
Munster were second best everywhere else, though. Their scrum, so unexpectedly forceful in the quarter-final victory over Northampton, was in strife from the outset, even though the impressive Biarritz loose-head prop Eduard Coetzee had the eagle-eyed Pearson on his case throughout the first quarter. In the hooker Benoît August, the Basques had the best front-row operator on view. Munster, meanwhile, had Jerry Flannery, whose level of indiscipline was as spectacular as ever.
Flannery's reputation in French rugby circles descended to somewhere near the earth's core during the Six Nations, when he felled the wing Alexis Palisson with the kind of football-style hack that gave Ron "Chopper" Harris a bad name in the 1970s. Yesterday, he was at it again. Early in the second half, with his side ahead 7-3, he tripped Karmichael Hunt as the New Zealander aimed a clearance kick upfield and was spotted by the touch judge Stuart Terheege. The result? A wounding Yachvili penalty, slotted from the best part of 50 metres.
From there on in, the chances of Biarritz falling short were pretty much the same as their goal-kicking scrum-half's: that is to say, next to zero. One of their English imports, the full-back Iain Balshaw, would have scored in the left corner but for a fine covering tackle from Tomas O'Leary, who had already done his colleagues a favour by bundling August into touch at the flag. Another Englishman, the flanker Magnus Lund, gave Munster a fresh dose of the shakes by charging down O'Leary, but Peyrelongue could not get the crucial pass away.
It did not matter, for Yachvili was repeatedly hitting the spot with that left boot of his. It took him until the 82nd minute to put his side out of danger, but the outcome had been obvious for some time. Biarritz may not secure the title: Toulouse, their opponents later this month, have the greater weaponry. But they have qualified for next year's tournament by winning here, and if Harinordoquy recovers in time for the final ... well, who knows?
Biarritz: Penalties Yachvili 6. Munster: Try Earls; Conversion O'Gara.
Biarritz I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, A Mignardi, A Erinle (J Peyrelongue, 47), J-B Gobelet (P Bidabe, 82); K Hunt, D Yachvili; E Coetzee (F Barcella, 61), B August, C Johnstone, J Thion (capt), T Hall (M Carizza, 2-5 and 70), M Lund, W Lauret, I Harinordoquy (F Faure, 68).
Munster P Warwick (T Gleeson, 83); D Hurley (S Deasy, 81), K Earls, J De Villiers, L Mafi; R O'Gara (capt), T O'Leary (P Stringer, 79); M Horan (J Brugnaut, 76), J Flannery (D Varley, 83), J Hayes (A Buckley, 58), D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll, A Quinlan (N Ronan, 77), D Wallace, J Coughlan (N Williams, 64).
Referee D Pearson (England).Reuse content